I founded a nonprofit before realizing I actually did. I had an idea and ran with it. I wrote some descriptions, connected with people, created a website, went through the legal foundations, and the rest was history. I was fourteen years old at the time. When people ask me for advice on how to start a nonprofit, I don't think in terms of what I did well but more of what I wish I knew. If someone would have sat me down and shared some realities of this nonprofit world, I would be better off. So, here it goes for all those who want to make a change.
It happens fast. Hold on tight.
People often tell me that the process for starting a nonprofit is slow and tedious. I think it is quite the opposite. Once you legally incorporate your nonprofit, the ball is already in motion. There is a certain momentum that is hard to explain. IRS tax exempt status applications are not as daunting as people think. If the organization has clear goals, this process should be easy. Most government websites outline everything you need to do clearly. Perhaps for many people it is the anticipation for hearing back from the government about whether or not they accepted your organization. The good news? States want people to startup nonprofits. In my home state of Pennsylvania, nonprofits are one of the reasons for a thriving community – both economically and culturally.
So many people want you to succeed.
Much of the success of my nonprofit came from people taking an interest in my work. Local leaders wanted to help and support my work on a journey towards a better world. I reached out to as many people as possible to gain advice. Don't expect people are going to come to you. A part of this process is exploration. Find lists of nonprofits in your neighborhood and contact them. While initial partnerships might not be possible, these are networks you can reach back out to when the nonprofit is up and running. When you meet with people, don't expect anything in return like money, ideas, or other avenues of support. The greatest gift you can receive is advice about starting up something and how to navigate through these bumpy waters. The odds are the person you are meeting with will learn something too. Don't limit yourself to just nonprofit leaders either – reach out to government officials, community advocates, and more. The more people you meet with, the more diverse your mission will become. How you market your nonprofit (and how many people know about!) will be helpful for the future.
And many will not.
Not everyone is going to like your idea. Some may not even think it will work. It is important to understand that nonprofits are like any other business – there is competition. If an organization's mission to similar to another, nonprofits compete for funding and consumers. When I first went through the nonprofit process, people questioned why I decided to start something at a young age. They thought I should enjoy college, take time for myself, or go slowly. These are helpful words of encouragement. People who start nonprofits are a unique group of people. Not everyone has that drive and commitment towards change. You shouldn't ignore people who are negative. Instead, listen to what they say, acknowledge their point of view, and move on.
Passion keeps you going.
Anytime I become stressed or overwhelmed, I think about why I decided to start my nonprofit. That passion and commitment will keep you moving. I wish someone told me this five years ago. All of the schedule madness and messiness of responding to emails mean nothing if you don't remind yourself of the original drive and your goals.
Missions change and that's okay.
Don't confuse passion and drive with overall mission. The first idea you have might not be the idea that comes out in the end. Throughout the course of your nonprofit startup experience, the initial mission statement is important but think of it as a canvas that will continue to build. My nonprofit's mission grew and changed when I realized how to best impact communities. The tool that I use to impact those communities is the same, but how to chose to go about implementing that tool to people is different. Marketing techniques and your mission develop. It's a part of the process!
It needs to be more than yourself.
People often talk about nonprofit sustainability. This could be through financial health or operational support. However, the most important sustainable model for your organization should be people. Starting a nonprofit doesn't necessarily mean a life-long contract to working there. When I received the opportunity to work away from my hometown one summer, I experienced for the first-time what life would be like without me physically at my nonprofit. There are several ways that founders can still be a part of the organization if they chose to leave. In addition, nonprofits are about people, so the more people involved, the better, right?
You're an entrepreneur.
In this day of age, people talk a great deal about entrepreneurs. Often, nonprofits aren't included in this category. Someone once told me that businesses and startups have products and money, not missions. A successful entrepreneur should be able to tell a story and share their passion. Everything in life has a mission. If you go through the process of starting up anything, be it a corporation or small nonprofit, you are indeed an entrepreneur. Be proud of it.